Mainbocher was an American couturier who operated fashion houses in Paris and later New York from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Main Rousseau Bocher was born in Chicago in 1891. He studied art at the University of Chicago, the Chicago Acedemy of Dine Arts and the Art Students League in New York, From 1911 to 1917, he studied and worked in Munich, London and Paris. In 1917, he served with the American hospital unit en route to France and at the end of the war he stayed on in Paris, intending to study singing. The loss of his voice forced him to seek and alternative career.

In 1922 he joined the Paris office of Harpers Bazaar as an illustrator and the following year, he was appointed the Paris fashion editor for the French VOGUE. By 1929 he felt he had learned all there was to know about fashion and left VOGUE.

In 1930 Bocher set up his own maison de couture at l2, avenue de Georges V, Paris. He joined his two names together to form MAINBOCHER and began to design gowns.

He afterwards said that he had discovered Elsa Schiaparelli because he had published her drawing of an unusual sweater in VOGUE from which she started her career.

Mainbocher wanted to keep his designs very exclusive and therefore invited only a select few people to attend his collections, and made them pay a large admission fee. His salon was exquisite, decorated with zebra skin rugs, mirrors, porcelain and fresh flowers. To these elegant surroundings came many celebrated ladies, most well-known being Wallis Simpson, later to become Duchess of Windsor. He created a special blue, the "Wallis Blue" for her. In 1938 he designed the Wedding dress and trousseau for Wallis Simpson when she married the ex King of England.

During the 30's his was the place to go for clothes that were perfectly appropriate. He made a woman look every inch a lady. His mannequins wore spotless white gloves, strings of pearls, hairbands with flat bows and other discreet accessories that perfectly complemented his suits or evening gowns. His clothes projected elegance and confidence.

As the war neared, Mainbocher moved from Paris to New York, where he was able to duplicate his success. He first established himself next to Tiffany on 57th street and in 1960 moved to 609 Fifth Avenue. He never had any other branches or licensing arrangements.

He believed that his clothes should be worn with good jewelry and simple shoes. His sole non-clothing offering was his perfume White Garden, which was only available at his salon.

Mainbocher worked by making sketches, using fabrics that he had chosen, and imagining the role a particular design might play in a client's life. He felt that suitability is the secret of being well dressed. His first collections were narrow bias-cut slip dresses in white or black patterned silks, and later, printed taffeta or crepe. In 1932 he produced a collection of cotton evening dresses, astonishing Paris with his checked gingham.

He used men's shirtings, linen towelling and cotton pique for floor-length dresses with cutaway halter necklines,or evening coats cut like blazers. In 1934 he introduced the first strapless evening dress in black satin. This did not catch on until later in the decade. By the late thirties, he was making dresses with a curvy silhouette, big sleeves, ruffles, trains, gold kidskin evening wraps, etc. In his last Paris collection in 1940, he presented the cinched-in "wasp" waist.

During the 2nd World War, he designed uniforms for several of the Services, Red Cross, Girl Scouts, and to keep within the fabric regulations made short evening dresses. During the50's his style seemed dowdy, skirts and jackets in soft wools, flat bows, Peter Pan collars,etc. Well into the 60's, his high-waisted, cowl and halter necked evening gowns were worn by his celebrated clients but he became more separate from other designers, since his were the most costly clothes of all the couture houses.

Mainbocher retired in 1971 and moved to Europe, until he died in 1976.

In the year 2000/2002, the city of New York decided to honour 24 American fashion designers by placing bronze plaques along the pavement of 7th Avenue, the great street of fashion in New York. This has been called the "FASHION WALK OF FAME." Mainbocher was one of those honoured.

The Look

From the start, Mainbocher specialized in simple, conservative, elegant, and extremely expensive fashions, the luxury of cut, materials, and workmanship that could only be recognized by those in the know. Most importantly, the clothes, exquisitely finished inside and out, gave self-confidence to the women who wore them. Mainbocher considered his contemporary Chanel too plebeian, and Schiaparelli too avant-garde. Instead, he admired Vionnet and borrowed her bias-cut technique for his own simple slip evening dresses in the 1930s. Twenty years later, a very similar slip design was employed by Mainbocher, produced in a signature elegant silk velvet fabric. From Augustabernard, another 1920s French dress designer, Mainbocher was inspired not only to form his name, but to use godets in skirts, and shoulder bows to catch the folds of draped bodices. Frequent Mainbocher suit treatments in the 1930s included short capelet effects or dropped shoulders widening into full sleeves. The designer knew his clientéle personally and designed for the lives they led, specializing in evening clothes. For resort wear he ventured into a mix-and-match ensemble consisting of matching top, skirt, bathing suit, and hat. Slim, demure black wool dresses for daytime would sport white chiffon interest at the throat. While Mainbocher did use some Japanese-like kimonos as eveningwear during this period, his hallmark was nonaggressive, not exaggerated or period dressing. A touch of labor-intensive luxury would be bestowed by all-over sequins on an evening jacket or on a bare top worn discreetly under a jacket. The grayish-blue, "Wallis blue," of the Duchess of Windsor's wedding dress, as well as the long, fluid crepe dress itself, was widely copied. The simple, conservative elegance of Mainbocher's style, feminine but not fussy, perfectly suited the slim, severe good looks of the Duchess and wealthy women like her. Additionally, she was honoring a fellow American. In 1934 Mainbocher introduced the boned strapless bodice, and before the war forced him to leave Paris, a waist cincher, forming tiny waisted, pleated and skirted dresses that presaged Dior's postwar New Look. Mainbocher's arrival in New York coincided perfectly with the city élite's love for French couture, for though he epitomized it, he satisfied their patriotism because he was actually an American. Society matrons such as C.Z. Guest and the Vanderbilts, and stage actresses such as Mary Martin, avidly patronized this "most expensive custom dressmaker" who made women look and feel exquisitely well-bred. Accedance to wartime economies resulted in Mainbocher's short evening dresses and versatile cashmere sweaters—beaded, lined in silk, and closed by jeweled buttons—designed to keep women warm in their bare evening gowns. Another practical wartime innovation, the "glamor belt," an apron-like, sequined or bead-encrusted accessory, could be added to embellish any plain costume. As the years progressed, Mainbocher continued to design exclusively on a made-to-order basis, refusing to license his name. La Galerie, a department in his salon, did produce clothes in standard sizes, a compromise for busy women without time for lengthy fittings. The reverse snobbery of the humble pastel gingham or cotton piqué used for fancy dresses appealed to Mainbocher's clientéle, as did refined tweed suits with subtle dressmaker touches such as curved bands or fabric appliqués, worn with coordinating bare-armed blouses. A Mainbocher standby was the little black "nothing" sheath dress. By the 1950s and 1960s, old guard Mainbocher customers enjoyed wearing impeccably made classic coats and suits of wool, often fur-lined, in the midst of nouveau-riche ostentation. The typical ladylike daytime Mainbocher look was accessorized by a plain velvet bow in the hair instead of a hat, a choker of several strands of real pearls, white gloves, and plain pumps with matching handbag. The integrity of luxurious fabrics, intricate cut, quality workmanship and materials, elegance and classicism, were cherished and worn for years by Mainbocher's upper crust customers.

Who Wears It

Duchess of Windsor, Ethel Merman


1930 White Garden
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